ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Not much escapes Peyton Manning's memory, and a competitor and contemporary like Champ Bailey left quite a history that goes back a long time with Manning.
Manning can remember the first time Bailey's talent struck him, back when they were conference rivals in the SEC.
"I still haven't gotten over [it]," Manning said. "I scrambled out to the right, I had a guy open in the back of the end zone and I thought I was going to throw a touchdown and Champ Bailey intercepts it. So I knew then, as a college player, what a special player and athlete he was."
Manning and Bailey's careers overlapped, with Manning drafted in 1998 and Bailey in 1999, and eventually they came full circle in 2012 when Manning joined the Broncos and became Bailey's teammate.
"It was an honor and a privilege to play with him here the past two years, but it was really an honor and a privilege to play against him for so many years," Manning added.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady looked back and could remember a single play, too. Bailey made an exceptional interception with Brady and the Patriots only five yards from scoring. Instead, Bailey jumped out in front of his receiver as Brady rolled to his right and Bailey sprinted up the sideline 100 yards before being caught by tight end Ben Watson, who Brady described as one of the fastest players on their team at the time.
"Can't get run down by a tight end, I have no idea but he did," Brady said, joking. "He made a great play in that game and that was a big turning point in that game. He was a phenomenal player, I loved playing against him. He's one of the very best to play in that position and he was a great Bronco. I have a lot of respect for the way that he approached the game, his attitude. He was a great competitor."
Bailey established himself as a feared defender to face for quarterbacks, receivers and coaches alike. In his 15-year career, he was a Pro Bowler 12 times, and after being acquired the Broncos in 2004, he turned in three terrific years as an All-Pro. For those unafraid to throw to his side of the field, he could make them pay, at one point intercepting 18 passes in a two-year span.
"You saw that throughout his career in the NFL and playing against him was always a challenge—unbelievable ball skills, probably as good of hands as any top-flight receiver in the NFL and then the ability to be a shut-down corner and there are so few of them," Manning said.
Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick saw much of the same things: "Champ was great and unique in the fact that he could match up with pretty much anybody—fast guys, quick guys, big guys, physical receivers. He had the skillset, anticipation and awareness to play inside in the slot and could play outside on the perimeter. Really a complete player that matched up well against pretty much whoever he covered."
And for as good an opponent Bailey was, he was an equally good teammate, as Manning and plenty others learned.
"To play with him, to see his work ethic, to really get into his head on his knowledge of offenses, it didn't surprise me at all and I really enjoyed that, talking to him. It was easy to see why he has been such a great player and a first ballot Hall of Famer in my opinion, without a doubt. I miss him. I miss seeing him No. 24 out there."
Chris Harris Jr. learned this firsthand as a young cornerback trying to learn his way up into a bigger role, and Bailey was there to be a formative hand helping him mold him into the player on the field for the Broncos today.
"Just coming in the league as a rookie, Champ—he helped a lot in preparation of getting ready for the games for me, and technique," Harris said. "I watched him and learned a lot from him and I was blessed to be able to play with a Hall of Famer, him and Dawkins in my first year, and also play with Champ for three years. So that really helped bring along my game a lot faster."
It wasn't just that Bailey could lead and teach what happens on the field to help the younger plays grow and adapt to the NFL game, but he knew could help teach them accountability when it came to putting in their full effort.
"Just compete. One thing about Champ, he used to talk about he could see guys missing work and taking days off or something, or if they're sick, they didn't show up. Champ was like, 'Man, if I'm sick or anything, I haven't missed a day of work in 15 years,' and that's something that's stuck with me a lot with Champ that he came to work every day."
As so many on his team and on those facing him on the other side would learn, Champ Bailey was truly a complete player.